Dean and Gephardt vie for Iowa nomination

Democratic dinner raises $300,000 for state party

November 16, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES — DES MOINES- It was something of a humiliating experience for Howard Dean the last time he joined a crowd of party activists at the Iowa Democratic Party's gala fall dinner, just over a year ago.

Then a back-of-the-pack long shot struggling to get himself noticed, Dean had to sit by stoically as the state's senior Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin, referred to him from the stage - twice - as "John Dean."

When he appeared at this year's dinner, held last night in a cavernous Des Moines arena, it was safe to say that Howard Dean had become a household name, at least to the more than 5,000 Iowans in attendance.

"I remember a year ago. We really were an asterisk in the polls. We had three employees and about $100,00 in the bank," said Dean, whose supporters packed the balcony and appeared to outnumber those of the other candidates.

Earlier yesterday, Dean, now the clear front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, laughed as he reflected on how far he has come.

"I never expected to be in this position when we started this campaign," the former Vermont governor told a group of reporters in the living room of a supporter's house here. In the scenario he sketched out back then, Dean said, he didn't expect to emerge as a leading contender until "long after Iowa and New Hampshire."

Instead, two months before the first presidential primaries and caucuses are held, Dean is positioned to put the Democratic nomination within his grasp by winning both those early states.

Though five rival presidential contenders competed for attention with Dean - and with master of ceremonies Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - at last night's dinner, Iowa Democrats say the contest here increasingly looks like a two-man race between Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.

Gephardt, who won here in 1988 and has maintained his ties to the state, is still regarded as the favorite. A recent statewide survey by the Des Moines Register showed him with a 7-percentage-point lead over Dean among likely attendees at the Jan. 19 precinct caucuses.

But the paper characterized Gephardt's advantage as "a little wobbly." And in interviews, Democratic politicians and independent analysts say they wouldn't be surprised if Dean won Iowa.

Dean's strategists believe that if he can win Iowa, it would further enhance his prospects eight days later in New Hampshire, where he holds a substantial lead in the polls. A victory in the primary there might make him unstoppable, not least because his huge fund-raising advantage gives him an important edge over his rivals in the crush of primaries that will quickly follow in February and early March.

Iowa's Harkin, who is neutral in the presidential race, agrees that if Dean sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire, none of the other candidates will be able to stop him. "The bow-wave effect will be such that it [the nomination contest] will be over," the senator, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992, said in an interview.

Last night's dinner featured speeches by Clinton and by candidates Gephardt; Dean; John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina; John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts; Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.

Clinton was the draw that helped the party sell out the event at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in a matter of a few days. It also sent a signal to Iowa Democrats that she is interested in pursuing the presidency in 2008, assuming that President Bush is re-elected.

Her presence also drew backstage grumbling from presidential campaign aides, afraid that Clinton's crowd appeal would overshadow their candidates. Several of them, including Kerry, Dean and Edwards, sat with arms folded or applauded only weakly during Clinton's 18-minute speech.

The New York senator told the crowd that "the pundits" have said "the field is weak" and "the nomination won't be worth having. ... Those are the [same] comments that were made in 1992, when Bill Clinton" ran.

Clinton also used her speech to attack Bush in blunt terms. "He has no vision for a future that will make America safer and stronger and smarter and richer and better," she said.

The dinner, an ear-splitting affair broadcast live on C-SPAN, raised about $300,000 for the state party. It was also the last major Democratic event before the caucuses, now nine weeks away.

Dean, freed from state spending limits and with more money raised in a shorter period of time than any Democrat in history, is investing heavily in Iowa, hoping to knock Gephardt from the race. His campaign has increased its television advertising, which includes 30-second spots to 30-minute infomercials.

All are aimed at a relatively small number of party activists - estimates of the number of Democrats who will attend the caucuses range from about 100,000 to 150,000.

Gephardt has the advantage of support from senior citizens and much of organized labor, two groups that represent the vast majority of caucus attendees. Dean, who is getting backing from liberals opposed to the war in Iraq, is also hoping to attract newcomers to the process, which makes predicting the outcome a hazardous enterprise because their numbers are difficult to gauge.

"The Gephardt vs. Dean fight is really about whether this party is going to nominate somebody who was opposed to the war in Iraq or somebody who was for it. Whether the party's stance will be quiet acquiescence to Bush or active opposition," said Dave Nagle, a former Democratic congressman and former state party chairman, who has yet to endorse a candidate.

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